Rescuing the Villain in the Citigroup Bailout

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has once again shown his willingness to take speedy action to rescue his friends in the financial world while allowing industrials such as the Big Three automakers to twist in the wind. The safety net for Citigroup that Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the FDIC announced last night represents the latest reversal in the ever-changing bailout “plan.”

Less than two weeks after announcing he had given up on the idea of purchasing toxic assets from banks in favor of capital infusions, Paulson is now saying that Treasury and the FDIC will “provide protection against the possibility of unusually large losses on an asset pool of approximately $306 billion” of mortgage-backed loans and securities. Given the way those securities have been falling in value, that possibility is far from remote. Citi graciously agreed to absorb the first $29 billion in losses, but taxpayers will probably be on the hook for much more.

In addition, Treasury is giving Citi another fix of $20 billion in capital. Paulson is driving a slightly harder bargain than in the past round of infusions, getting Citi to pay a dividend of 8 percent, up from 5 percent in the previous deals. Citi will also comply with “enhanced executive compensation restrictions and implement the FDIC’s mortgage modification program.” The latter is perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this new bailout, in that some homeowners may benefit.

Yet it is still amazing to see the federal government give essentially a blank check to Citi while the automakers are in limbo. The Big Three have a lot of mistakes to answer for, but they don’t compare to Citi’s checkered history. Throughout its history, the company has made reckless decisions that weakened the financial system and necessitated its own rescue. As early as the financial panic of 1837, what was then called City Bank had to be bailed out by tycoon John Jacob Astor. In the early 20th Century, the firm, then the main bank of the Rockefellers and Standard Oil, was one of the first commercial banks to make a big move into securities. This paved the way for the excesses of the 1920s and the ensuing stock market crash.

During the 1970s, First National City Bank was a major instigator of lending to third-world countries, which later backfired on the big banks. That and other forms of forms of questionable lending weakened Citi’s financial condition, prompting it to solicit a big capital infusion from Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal in 1991. Pursuing a replay of the 1920s, Citi merged in 1998 with insurance and securities giant Travelers Corp. and began acting more like an investment bank than a commercial one.

Over the past decade, Citi led the way in another boomerang situation: promoting subprime lending to low-income borrowers. In 2000 Citi spent $31 billion to purchase Associates First Capital, one of the more aggressive predatory lenders responsible for the wave of untenable mortgages that are now poisoning the financial system.

All this doesn’t include other scandals involving money laundering and collusion with the likes of Enron and WorldCom. In the latter two cases alone, Citi had to pay some $5 billion to settle investor lawsuits. Citi’s finances weakened to the point late last year that it had to get another Middle Eastern shot in the arm—a $7.5 billion investment by the government of Abu Dhabi.

And here we go again with another rescue—this time by a benefactor with the deepest pockets of all. Paulson would have us believe that Citi is a financial damsel in distress that must be saved for the good of the country. In fact, the company is more like a Snidely Whiplash villain who periodically lies down on the railroad track pretending to be a victim in order to get rescued by gullible Dudley Do-Rights. Who knows what mischief Citi will get into with its latest haul.

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